For the love of acting: Ramanjit, Jagjeet and Tia on Anatomy of Violence
Deepa Mehta’s Anatomy of Violence took birth out of a workshop that featured twelve actors that included well-known names, experienced theatre actors as well as newcomers. Mehta, in collaboration with theatre artist Neelam Mansingh, mentored these artists for her docu-drama that revisits the ghastly Delhi gang rape and explores the root causes of the incident by delving into the minds of the six rapists.
The film will be screened in the Discovering India category at the upcoming MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. Ahead of the festival, Pandolin explores the lives of three of the film’s actors Ramanjit Kaur, Jagjeet Sandhu and Tia Bhatia who have one common thread between them – their love for acting.
Anatomy of Violence is a workshop that turned into a film where one actor has played multiple characters. Tell us about the roles that you have played in the film.
I have played three roles in the film. One of them is a pregnant mother whose 10-year-old son is rushing her to the hospital for her delivery. It shows the tough circumstances that he faces on the way and how that would have affected him, as there is always a shifting point in everyone’s life. I also play the mother and colleague of the main protagonist, Janki. In the last scene of the film, the mother is interviewed after Janki passes away. That scene has come out really well and was a cathartic process for me. I cry every time that I watch the scene. It is so painful when I’m talking about Janki and saying, “Bahut bahadur bacha tha, kabhi complain nahi kiya.” This one scene comprises the pain of both Janki and her parents.
What kind of an experience was it to switch between different characters in one film?
An actor studies, observes life very closely and keeps absorbing. When we try to recreate any role, it is all those observations that we have absorbed, which become the starting point. Anatomy of Violence was shot over a period of 10 to 12 days. I could have come up with ten different characters in those days. Switching on and off is something that a good actor should be brilliant at.
Switching on and off is something that a good actor should be brilliant at
This is your third association with Deepa Mehta, having acted in Fire and Heaven on Earth. Tell us about it.
Deepa is my director Neelam Mansingh Chowdhary’s childhood friend. I started my professional theatre journey when I was in school, so I have seen Deepa since then and she has seen me growing up. If we talk about Anatomy Of Violence, it will be more about Neelam as she was the workshop director who designed and executed it, whereas Deepa was shooting the film. Working on this film was similar to my previous experiences of working in theatre productions. Neelam gives you a very good base of what she wants and how she wants it. She also gives actors a lot of substance to work on.
With Deepa, even while working in Heaven on Earth, I realized that she is a perfectionist. And yet she is very subtle and gentle with her actors, which is a very strange combination. If you are a perfectionist, you can be harsh. But if Deepa has to explain a point, she would beautifully sit you down and take your inputs too.
Your two-decade long journey in theatre has seen you perform in UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan et all. What has kept you so close to theatre and kept the consistency alive?
It is the intense process and the fact that one gets to dig deep inside. Also the whole process of performing and sharing with a live audience makes you feel their reactions. Sharing that common energy and together creating another experience is something that I can die for. Besides working with Neelam Mansingh’s theatre group ‘The Company’, I also established ‘The Creative Arts’ in Calcutta in 2002 to create awareness about and impart formal, systematic training in various fine arts, especially theatre. In 1997, the French Government Scholarship gave me the opportunity to work with Ariane Mnouchkine for three months. The Charles Wallace India Trust Award, UK, in 2003, allowed me to train in CSSD, LAMDA, BSSD and work with Improbable Theatre and Firenza Guidi in Italy. I have also worked with Clive Barker and Tess De Quince.
The fact that I also explore different genres of theatre as a director is an interesting challenge for me. My favourite genre is site-specific where one uses the whole site. I have used huge sites in Calcutta to create big productions.
I feel that as an actor, I’m now itching to explore films
Films are the ultimate destination for most theatre actors. Yet, what makes you selective about your film projects?
When, as an actor, you have explored so much depth in theatre, you need a role that will give you a similar kind of intensity. You can’t just do random roles. For instance, besides my three feature films, I have also done two short films that are really different. One of them is Bosnian filmmaker Samir Mehanovic’s Mouth of Hell, which was shot in the coal mines of Jharkhand and has won the prestigious Grand Prix award. The other short film is Shalini Raghavaiah’s Watch The Stars For Me Tonight.
Even though I have done theatre all my life, I feel that as an actor, I’m now itching to explore films. If I have given so much intensity to theatre, there is no reason that I can’t give the same to films.
You play one of the rapists involved in the Nirbhaya case. How did you mould yourself into the character?
A director like Deepa Mehta won’t make a film on things that everybody is talking about. Be it her or my teacher Neelam Mansingh Chowdhary; both of them always come up with out of the box ideas. The documentary, Daughter of India had already show the real side of the Nirbhaya case. Creating fiction was more challenging and interesting. The main reason behind making this film was to trace the root cause and explore the lives of the rapists. By understanding their psyche, we wanted to understand more about their rage and cruelty against the victim.
They deliberately chose the six actors from different cities. I’m from Punjab while the others are from Bihar, Delhi, Mumbai etc. They wanted to choose trained actors with different backgrounds. There was no script but our brief was that we are from the lower middle-class background. On the first day, our task was to develop our background and our character. So I developed a character named Bittu who is a mechanic, living with his mother whom he loves a lot.
A director like Deepa Mehta won’t make a film on things that everybody is talking about
In the process of the making of this film, what were your learnings about the rapists and existing brutality against women?
Along with these six boys, there is a simultaneous track about a girl named Janki who also hails from a similar background but is far different from them. And education is what creates the entire difference because Janki was educated while these boys were not. At the end of the film, my character is giving an interview where he says that he neither cares about what happened nor is he guilty. When I saw the film at TIFF, it was so disturbing to see that I could say such terrible things. But my process of working is such that I go deep into the character.
The process must have been really intimidating!
Until a few years ago, I would go so deep into the roles that I played that there were times when I couldn’t manage to come out of them. I then spoken to Neelam ma’am about how an actor should switch on and off while performing. An actor should always be aware of the fact that he is enacting a role and that it isn’t real life.
When I saw the film at TIFF, it was so disturbing to see that I could say such terrible things
You finished your Masters in Theatre in 2014 and have been fortunate to act in four films – The Last Act, Rupinder Gandhi The Gangster, Qissa Panjab and now Anatomy of Violence. This is rare as most actors face a long struggle. What message would you like to share with upcoming actors?
From the beginning, I was quite clear that I wanted to do theatre or films. If anyone wants to come in to this field, they should be clear that they have to devote their life to it. I have got all these films only on the basis of my plays. And I will keep doing theatre alongwith films. Also, I often joke to people that, “Mere modhe te Punjabi industry da bhar hai…” (I have a huge responsibility of the Punjabi industry on my shoulders). Once a leading Punjabi director told me that when Punjab gets real actors, the content of the films will change and the industry will no longer remain star-driven. Since then I’ve been clear that I would work only in Punjab and not struggle amidst the crowd in Mumbai.
You are based in Toronto while the Anatomy of Violence workshop took place in India. How did you land a role in it?
I was an assistant on Deepa ji’s Beeba Boys, and had auditioned for her. Last year I got a phone call for a wonderful opportunity, which ended up being Anatomy of Violence.
I played a variety of roles in this docu-drama ranging from an 8-year-old to a 20-year-old
Tell us about the different roles that you have played in this docu-drama? Was it challenging to play different roles in the same set up?
I played a variety of roles in this docu-drama ranging from an 8-year-old to a 20-year-old. Each role was totally different and required a distinctive process depending upon the situation and the age that I was playing.
You’ve assisted Deepa Mehta and also create videos for your own YouTube channel. How do your learnings from behind the camera influence you as an actor?
My experience with Deepa ji during Beeba Boys has taught me not just the technical side to acting but also the importance of each scene through the director’s eyes. I now understand why the director wants a scene in a specific way, and why the writer has a preferable tone. Working behind the camera has also helped me in the making of my YouTube videos because it taught me lighting, effects, editing, etc.
My experience with Deepa ji has taught me not just the technical side to acting but also the importance of each scene through the director’s eyes
What are your takeaways from Anatomy of Violence and what would you like people to take home from it?
Anatomy of Violence will always be a life-changing film for me. It has not only given me a voice to speak up about many things but also to eliminate my fear and take risks. What I would like is for people to start creating conversations on the topic. Be it discussions about changing the mindset of society or the lessons to be learnt from this appalling incident.